Painting Lessons

I have a long history of painting rooms badly.

My bedroom in Portland: what was meant to be a festive, springy green came out of the can a radioactive, fluorescent nightmare. My friend Jess helped me paint. "Gosh," he said, "this is bright." It looked awful but I lived with it for years because I couldn't bear the thought of painting the room a second time. In my bedroom in Bellingham most of the paint ended up on the ceiling or the floor, but that house was such a disaster the mess in my room seemed more an homage to the prevailing aesthetic. Kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms: even if I taped the edges, put down dropcloths, whatever, I'd end up with streaky drips and swipes of paint in places that shouldn't have been possible. The insides of cabinets, the backsides of shelves, sometimes other rooms altogether. I dated people who were better than me at the things I wasn't good at and made them paint my rooms for me (once, at four in the morning the night before my mom came to visit; that's love).

I knew in my head how to paint but it was like there was no straight path for the message to travel to my body. Like some part of me would just give up and then spontaneously upend the paint can out of dread. But a year and a half ago I moved into an apartment by myself, the first time I have lived alone in something like a decade, and the first time I have lived alone with indoor plumbing ever, and this weekend I painted the bathroom by myself, and I did a good job. Not a great job, but a good one. The edges are mostly even and there is no paint on the ceiling or on the floor, and I didn't spill anything, and the walls are an even, pleasant blue. And I don't know what happened exactly, how suddenly I was better at something I had always been bad at, and I am not going to belabor this metaphor, which is so obvious it has already been utilized by The Karate Kid, but work teaches you something about how to work, and sometimes the lesson is so subtle you do not know it has taken root until you are doing a thing you did not entirely know you could do.

It is repetition, and practice, but also something that is bigger and more intangible than both. It happened to me when I learned to print letterpress. I was a bad printer for a long time, and then I started to care about being a good printer while I was still a bad one, and then one day I set up a print in the press bed and pulled a proof and it was good. And after that the press itself seemed to behave better and it was like my hands had a new way of speaking, like when you are struggling to learn a language and one morning you wake up and realize you had an entire dream in your new tongue. I think of it now in my yoga class when my teacher tells us to hold a pose and I know I can do it, not only because my arms are stronger than they used to be but because my knowledge of myself has expanded to include the possibility I am good at something I was not good at before. Like writing, or being in love, or painting a room: there is no clear path between not knowing how and knowing, no obvious task that will get you there, other than the doing of the thing until it becomes a part of you, until you are big enough to hold the knowing. Until you learn to see yourself as someone who can.